First or Last

Lent 1, Narrative Lectionary Texts: Psalm 19:7-10 and Mark 10:17-31

As we turn our liturgical colors from epiphany white to the purples and violets of lent, we also come to a turn in Mark’s telling of the gospel narrative. Jesus has been teaching, healing, and proclaiming the good news primarily around Galilee for the first portion of this gospel.He has been keeping things a little on the down-low, asking people not to share too broadly, but revealing himself, revealing his power and authority, bit by bit, layer by layer.

But now, as he begins the journey toward Jerusalem, toward the cross, Jesus begins to focus his teaching a bit differently. Instead of describing what the Kingdom of God is like, he is beginning to reveal more specifically what sort of Messiah God has sent,and what will be required of those who would follow him.

These are difficult lessons, filled with hard words. Like these from Mark 9:30-32:
They went on from there and passed through Galilee. He did not want anyone to know it; for he was teaching his disciples, saying to them,“The Son of Man is to be betrayed into human hands, and they will kill him, and three days after being killed, he will rise again.” But they did not understand what he was saying and were afraid to ask him.

I don’t know why they were afraid. Maybe they were afraid of the answer, afraid that they would be part of his demise, or that they would be caught up in the killing as well.
Maybe they were afraid of what he might be like
when he came back after those three days.
Or maybe they were afraid of admitting that they didn’t really understand his teaching.

I don’t know. But I do know that it’s human nature to let questions go unasked.

This week, when I took Paul to visit his eye surgeon, I noticed a sign in the exam room and near every exit door. In great big letters it said “Unanswered Questions?  Ask them now!” Apparently it is human nature to let questions go unasked and thus unanswered… even if our sight depends on it!

And sometimes we let questions go unanswered because we of the answers we would have to give.

After that teaching about his death, while they were traveling to Capernaum, Jesus heard the disciples arguing about something. Once they stopped, he asked them about it. “What were you arguing about on the way?”

Yeah, there was an awkward silence… They were silent, because they had been arguing with each other about who was the greatest.

Don’t you know he must have sighed…. But then Jesus sat down, called the twelve together, and began teaching them again, saying, “Whoever wants to be first must be last of all and servant of all.”

And then, he placed a little child among them; and taking the child in his arms, he said, “Whoever welcomes one such child in my name welcomes me, and whoever welcomes me, welcomes not me but the one who sent me.”

What kind of Messiah is Jesus?
The kind who will give up his life for others, and then rise again after three days.

What kind of followers does he expect?
The kind who are willing to be last, willing to serve all
The kind who re-orient their understanding of what power is for and what the law is for
The kind who welcome God by welcoming the unwelcome and unworthy

You see, the child that Jesus brought into their midst represented more than just the youngest among them. Children – especially in Jesus’ context – are vulnerable. They are unable to contribute much to the community, yet they require food, drink, support of all sorts. Kind of like the elderly – especially those with no family. Or those with physical or mental ailments.

While the disciples argued about who will be the greatest, Jesus’ “number 2” – the most powerful, influential, perhaps even well-fed and financially secure person in his entourage, who does Jesus point to as his priority? The most vulnerable, the least powerful, the least secure. Those who have the least to offer in return.

Jesus is painting a very different portrait of God as King than anything these men had heard described or had directly experienced.
This king is welcomed when you welcome the poor
I am honored, he says, when you honor the weak
I am lifted up when you are aware of and caring for the most vulnerable among you

The messiah who will be lifted up on the cross, is honored and lifted up when those follow him assure that the last in this world’s structures are first to be served in God’s kingdom.

The twelve have heard a little more and walked a little farther when the rich man stops them along the road with his questions. But the conversation doesn’t shift all that much with this interruption and conversation. Jesus’ teaching is still about the orientation of the heart and the prioritization of the many over the one.

Let’s look a little closer…

Mark is unconcerned with details about this man, aside from his wealth. And his sincerity. He is not like the pharisees, who seek to test Jesus or to debate the details of the law. And he is not like the disciples, who choose not to ask at all. He notes that Jesus is Good, then asks what he must do to inherit eternal life.

In many ways, he is on the right track here:
Nothing is good apart from God, so perhaps in calling Jesus a good teacher, he acknowledges the good of God in Jesus. And he seems open to the nature of life as something given by God and received by humanity, an inheritance that comes by way of relationship.

But there is something in the way of his fully understanding… When he thinks about the wealth he has amassed, he understands it as God’s blessing of his keeping the commandments. Like a reward, apart from any kinship or responsibility.

When Jesus listed out the commandments, the man heard them in terms of what NOT to do. Thus he could say, “I’ve kept them since my youth.” But a God who is about relationship and reciprocity also considers what is done in light of the law for the good of others.
Do not kill also challenges us to assure that others survive and thrive in a hard world
Do not commit adultery… and make sure your relationships are mutually honoring help others build strong marriage bonds
Do not steal… but do make sure that everyone has enough so that no one needs to take resources from others
Do not bear false witness… in fact, rather than lying or tearing down someone else, use your words to honor and lift others out of the pit.
I think you get the drift.

When Jesus says to the man, sell what you own and give the money to the poor, he didn’t say, give away everything and become destitute. He didn’t glorify poverty as something to attain

Jesus simply said, you have amassed treasure here in this world, where others are doing without. By sharing from your abundance, you can change that. When you have done so, you will have treasure in heaven. Then come, then follow me.

Here’s the kicker – Jesus didn’t say this as a punishment. It wasn’t about taking away something he hadn’t earned. Far from it!

Jesus looked at this man and loved him. Loved him for asking the question. Loved him for asking the right question. The man’s desire to hold onto his wealth, was in no small part, a result of the teaching that prosperity is a sign of God’s blessing.

The flip side of that message? That the poor must have earned their poverty. They must be sinners and criminals unworthy of God’s love, much less God’s blessings, unworthy of position in the community, unworthy of the support of the community.  

Jesus loved this man enough to speak the hard truth, that discipleship requires sacrifice for the sake of others, self-denial, sharing, and working toward the end of systemic injustice. By focusing on the needs of the community, by helping to bring God’s kingdom to fruition here on earth, he will indeed see treasures in heaven.

Sadly, this word from Jesus is too much for the man. He leaves, dismayed and grieving… unwilling to take on the challenge.  And so Jesus turns his attention to the disciples, who – no doubt – have been watching this exchange closely.

Rather than letting them, and us, off the hook, Jesus makes clear that this was not just one man’s issue. In fact, he repeats himself just to be sure we get it. And this time, he uses hyperbole, rather than a parable, so that he can get right to the point. Seriously…

There is just no stinking way to shove a camel through the eye of a needle. Which means…
There is just no way a rich person can enter the kingdom of God

Now- let’s not lose Jesus’ train of thought here…
We are talking about the Kingdom of God that has drawn near with the advent of Jesus’ ministry in the world.
We are talking about his invitation to participate right there, right then, in the transformative work 
of being the beloved community. His invitation to go beyond following commandments by the letter and into a way of life that answers God’s commands to protect the poor and bring justice to the oppressed.

Perhaps it would be easier for someone with little wealth to take that risk. To say, “all I have… which ain’t a lot… is here for all of us.” There is much more to lose, and much less to gain, if one brings a wealth of resources to the shared table.

But there is that other thing at play….that strange notion that economic wealth is a demonstration of God’s grace. Jesus’ followers would have seen wealthy elites in leadership roles in religious and political communities, people called by God to lead others, thus presumably among those God most favors.

Which is what leads them to ask, Wait – if those wealthy leaders who are clearly blessed by God can’t get in, then what hope do I have? Who can be saved?

This is when Jesus brings the really good news: God is able to do those things which are impossible for us humans. God is able to change hearts. God is able to transform followers so that they might transform the world.

God’s spirit can empower wealthy people to make sacrifices. I read yesterday about an Australian couple who were honored for giving away over $100 million.  Do you know what they are using their wealth to do?
fight child homelessness,
fund research into melanoma,
provide healthcare centers at universities areas that serve indigenous peoples.

In other words, they are using their wealth to bring healing, wholeness, and shelter to the most vulnerable. And their generosity has inspired others in Australia, a country that is not known for philanthropy.

God inspires young people to sacrifice their wealth, too… There is the young man in Utah who made sure every girl at his high school got a flower for valentines. He gave flowers to several friends last year, which opened his eyes to how many girls were left out, and how painful that can be socially.

So he worked at jobs after school and this summer, then got permission to bring 900 carnations to school and enlisted several friends to help deliver all of the flowers during one class period. There were tears and laughter of gratitude when it became clear that no one would need to feel lonely this year.  He saw those girls and loved them as neighbors, and he wanted them to know they mattered.

Sometimes, the Kingdom of God is like a pink carnation. That is the beauty of what Jesus is calling us toward-
The chance to offer life and hope and laughter to people around us.
The chance to invite others into a community that sees people and loves them, just as they are, and then works to assure they are not hungry, thirsty or alone.
The chance to know fullness in our own lives as we experience the love and life of being in community.

As we move through Lent, and as we begin to discern what God would have us do as a congregation of disciples in this community, I invite you to prayerfully consider…
What do we have in abundance?
What does those around us most need?
How might we be called to share here and now, so that we and all those we meet and serve and love can begin to experience the Kingdom as it Can Be and imagine the Kingdom yet to come.

Let us pray….

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